Mother India to Queen: The Evolution of Bollywood Heroine
With time, everything changes. Be it nature or movies and when it comes to the latter, evolution can occur over night or to be more precise, over a Friday night.
There have been many changes done to the art of storytelling and the way films are made since the beginning of cinema. But most importantly, it’s the way female characters have come of age over the last 60 years.
Let’s flashback to Hindi cinema in the 50’s when actresses like Mala Sinha, Meena Kumari, and Madhubala were playing the quintessential divas of that era. But as 85 percent of Indian women remained illiterate, the cinema showed them as a mere object of beauty. It was only until 1957 when Mehboob Khan directed ‘Mother India’ that was without a doubt the most successful women oriented film of that time. Not only was it nominated as Best Foreign Language Film in Academy Awards, the story of a poverty-stricken woman who raised her sons through many trials and tribulations still remains one of the finest Indian films ever made. Nargis (Mother of Sunjay Dutt) played the iconic role of Radha who always stuck to her own moral code, no matter how difficult the struggle. So much so that she ends up shooting her own son to prevent a crime.
This film showed a side of an Indian woman which was never before seen, a woman who was a faithful wife, sole bread earner widow and a loving yet an unbiased mother.
Moving from the sacrificing lady to the modern divas of the 60’s. Introducing Helen who got her break in 1958 at the age of 19, when she performed the song “Mera Naam Chin Chin Chu” in ‘Howrah Bridge’. After that, offers started pouring in throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
It was the era of Cabaret dance, that grabbed the attention of the movie buffs and pulled the audiences to the cinema halls. And one name that is synonym with this dance form is Helen. Although Helen is the most famous on-screen Cabaret dancer but other actresses like Bindu, Shashikala, Aruna Irani has also made a name for themselves by doing some popular Cabaret dances.
If the 60’s was daring to be open minded by showing more skin, the 70’s showed more shades of Indian women than just being the cabaret dancer. Thanks to the urge among filmmakers to come up with a more modern female character that we became fortunate enough to have Zeenat Aman make her debut. She was the second runner-up in “Miss India” and also won “Miss Asia Pacific” title in 1970. She had a substantial impact on the characterization of heroin in Hindi films. With free-spirited roles in films like ‘Hare Rama Hare Krishna’ and ‘Yaadon Ki Baraat’, Zeenat championed the new, youthful and rebellious idea of a woman with western values in Bollywood.
But she was definitely not the only daring diva to step in the industry that time. Among multiple sensations like Hema Malini, Neetu Singh, Rakhee, Parveen Babi and Reena Roy, that decade saw the reign of a queen who had the caliber to give powerhouse performances and leave men drooling after her beauty. Her name is Rekha. The ultimate actress who could easily mold herself in any given character.
Earlier known as Bhanurekha, she was born in 1954 to Tamil actor Gemini Ganesan and Telugu actress Pushpavalli. She’s acted in over 180 films in her career of more than 40 years and the portrayal of a conventional courtesan in “Umrao Jaan,” got her the National Film Award for it.
Although, there were also Smita Patil and Shabana Azmi who were emerging during that time but their ‘time to shine’ actually began in the 80’s when art films boomed for their originality whereas commercial movies became more and more repetitive. Smita Patil’s greatest roles were in films such as Aakrosh, Manthan, Mirch Masala and Bhumika. Along with Shabana Azmi, she was one of the prominent faces of new wave cinema in India. ‘Arth’ being a cult film on an extra-marital affair starred both Shabana and Smita. In her films, Smita’s characters often represented an intelligent femininity, which was quite unconventional back then, in the times of male-dominated society.
Shabana Azmi, on the other hand, won 4 national awards by 1984 and became a house hold name for her flabbergasting performances. Numerous of her films were and still is cited as a form of progressivism which portrays the Indian society. She went on to do experimental and parallel Indian cinema like Deepa Mehta’s 1996 film ‘Fire’, a film that dealt with a controversial and sensitive issue of lesbianism and also starred Nandita Das.
By the end of the 80’s, we also saw a glimpse of the next biggest superstars mainly Madhuri Dixit. Although, the name says it all, but I have to do the honors of shedding some light on history, so here goes, Madhuri made her debut in ‘Abodh’ way back in 1984 but received wider public recognition with ‘Tezaab’ (1988). Remember that silly, catchy song ‘Ek, Do, Teen’. Well, it was The Party Track at that time.
Madhuri made a platform for herself proving that she can act, dance and do that kind of scenes too. Like one of the most explicit kisses between the young Madhuri Dixit and a much older Vinod Khanna in ‘Daayavan’ in 1988, which is also touted as one of the longest smooching scenes showed the side of a gutsy new heroine in Hindi cinema.
However, one of her most memorable roles came in Hum Aapke Hain Kaun (1994) where she played the girl next door and made everyone her die-hard fan. It’s not because she was the best dancer in the industry and wore great costumes, but she brought a sense of realism in her acting that made her characters feel genuine and relatable. She neither went overboard nor under-performed a scene. Perfection should’ve been her middle name.
But how can we talk about Madhuri and not mention Sridevi. Her portrayal of a mentally challenged girl in ‘Sadma’ (1983) is considered one of her best performances till date.
Although, Sridevi made her debut way back in the 60’s as a child artist, but it was the 90’s where both Madhuri and Sridevi were battling to take the crown of being the best in the business. Sridevi was the highest paid Hindi actress from 1985-1992 and the 2nd highest paid actress from 1993-1996.
However, far away from this rat race, a few unsung heroines like Seema Biswas and Nandita Das were pushing the envelope with films like ‘Bandit Queen’ and ‘Fire’ respectively. They were ready to go to jaw dropping extents to show their acting chops.
Seema Biswas fooled the audiences, for 2 hours, into believing that she might actually be Phoolan Devi. Such is the power of her performance. No doubt, she won the National Award for it. Furthermore, Nandita Das carried the baton forward by collaborating with Deepa Mehta on 3 films including the earlier version of Water with Shabana Azmi that never got completed thanks to the political parties in our repressive country.
Anyway, Nandita Das didn’t feel the urge to look glamorous and picked characters that challenged her. She played a bisexual daughter-in-law (Fire), a maid in the pre-independent India (Earth) and to a gang-rape victim in ‘Bawandar’.
As people began recognizing these characters in films, the new millennium only encouraged cinema to grow up and thus, giving birth to more fresh female characters. Enter Kareena, the queen bee who after debuting in a commercial box office dud, ‘Refugee’ in 2000, dared to do an experimental, non-commercial film called ‘Chameli’ (2003) where she played a prostitute. And in 2004 Kareena played a modern girl who flirts around yet knows her moral limit in Mani Ratnam’s Yuva.
One thing that’s commendable about her is that Kareena kept redefining herself by doing one film for the commercial audience and one film to prove her talent. When Imtiaz Ali approached her to play a bubbly, happy go lucky, Geet in ‘Jab We Met’ (2007) she surprised audiences and critics by coming across as one of the cutest, lovable and genuine characters in the last 10 years. Not only did she win many hearts for that role, she won the Best Actress award in all major award functions.
She continued to set the screen on fire with her presence but it was time for the new queen to take the throne a.k.a. Kangana Ranaut. Having won a National Award for best supporting actress in ‘Fashion’ (2008) where she played a drug addict super-model, Kangana did a complete makeover and changed her image after a few years of forgettable films. To find her own style and audiences she decided to stop being the typical heroine in all these Hero oriented films where heroines are merely providing romantic angle and dance whenever a song comes out of nowhere.
Fortunately, the decision to change her film choices did wonders for her. One reason why her latest “woman-centric” films work so well at the box office is that it doesn’t show her as a sex symbol anymore or even a confident heroine. On the contrary, Kangana does characters that are flawed and conflicted yet win empathy from audiences and critics with her brilliant understanding of emotions as she simulates them so effortlessly and is also gifted with superb comic timing. Films like ‘Tanu Weds Mannu’, ‘Queen’ and ‘Tanu Weds Mannu Returns’ prove that she is here to stay for good.
And there you have it. From Nargis to Kangana, we have come a long way as far as women’s portrayal on screen is concerned. Back in 50’s, heroines had only one objective, that of being a sati-savitri, who never looked beyond her family and husband. The kitchen was where she belonged, and she epitomized all the good things. It was only in the 80s and 90s that the very identity of heroine evolved as a strong character (Rekha in Khoon Bhari Mang, 1988), (Meenakshi Sheshadri in Damini, 1993) leading to 2015 where today’s leading lady demands gender equality and then some.
Nevertheless, nothing lasts forever. There’s no surprise that all actresses have limited time to rule on screen and God knows who will be the next best heroine of Bollywood. But fret not thyself, ‘cause once something is captured on film, it’s captured forever. Sincere performances will become a thing to talk about. Exceptionally talented will be remembered as legends and someone else is going to write another article on the evolution of Bollywood’s Heroine sooner than you think.